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As the war in Ukraine continues into its ninth week, it has been interesting to watch realists react in horror to U.S. policymakers sounding super realist.

Consider, for example, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin saying in Poland on Monday that “we want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” That is the kind of relative gains logic that should warm the cockles of any realist’s atrophied heart. But nooooo, they have to complain about the undiplomatic nature of the statement!

I kid! I kid because I love realists (who are correct that Austin should not have said what he said out loud — but they are correct for non-realist reasons). Furthermore, the claim that they have no heart when it comes to their analysis of international relations is poorly founded. It is rather that realists are painfully aware of the “frantic violence” created by war and would strongly prefer to see bloody conflicts come to a peaceable end as soon as possible.

This is why folks like the Atlantic Council’s Emma Ashford argue that “the longer the conflict goes on, the higher the costs mount for Ukraine’s people. Russia [is] clearly to blame, but the default shouldn’t necessarily be to assume that continuing the conflict is better than the alternatives.”

This has been a powerful realist critique of U.S. policies that have no doubt prolonged the conflict. I wonder, however, if it is entirely accurate. What if the war in Ukraine leads to fewer wars in the future?

I want to be clear that I am not entirely sure I am correct in making this proposition. Even tentatively proposing this proposition gives off a very Orwellian “war is peace” vibe, and that makes me uncomfortable.

That said, consider that for the past quarter-century, both the United States and Russian Federation presumed they could intervene in small states and achieve their goals with minimal effort. The United States intervened in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. In each case, there were rapid gains on the military front during the initial phase of the conflict. Russia achieved similar successes in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.

Of course, we know how many of these military expeditions played out for the United States. The long wars of Iraq and Afghanistan were such that even with the haphazard withdrawal last year, Americans did not want to keep troops there. The U.S. appetite for military adventurism, which peaked during Iraq, has subsided.

Russia is now learning the same hard lessons from its war in Ukraine. This is a point that Alexander Clarkson made this month in World Politics Review: “The current trajectory of the Russo-Ukrainian war should act as a wake-up call when it comes to these entrenched assumptions about the ability of great powers to militarily overwhelm smaller states.” He concludes: “Ukraine’s ability to sustain a near-peer war with Russia indicates that the challenges other well-organized and disciplined smaller states like Vietnam, Taiwan or perhaps even Iran face against great powers could prove less intractable in a full military conflict than has often been assumed. often portrayed as the helpless ‘little guys’ of geopolitics.”

Russia’s difficulties in Ukraine will not stop all wars. If great power interventions are a significant source of interstate violence, however, then Russia, China and the United States might be deterred from further aggression in a defense-dominant world. And the more difficulties Russia faces in Ukraine, the greater the likelihood of Russian officials internalizing the lesson of “do not invade other countries.”

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